Nurture, mate. Phil Whitaker on the wrong-headed pyschobabble of a career pontificate
They F*** You Up
Oliver James Bloomsbury, 370pp, £16.99
In his latest book, Oliver James amasses research from social and medical science to support his tenet that personality is largely formed during our first six years, and that the principal determinant of who we are is our upbringing, not our genes. Children cannot be considered as genetic Tonka Toys, trundling across the carpet of life on a preordained course, surmounting obstacles in their path. Instead, they are psychological Play-Doh, infinitely malleable in the hands of their parents.
The rapidly growing infant brain acquires complex skills at a phenomenal rate by absorbing, experimenting and interacting. If in the space of a year basic language can be distilled from an undifferentiated auditory environment, then why not the rudiments of personality? Just as a child's mother tongue is determined by the language spoken to her, so might the behaviour and personalities of those who raise her govern the way she comes to be.
There are two objections to this hypothesis. The first arises from studies such as those on identical twins reared apart, which demonstrate that for almost every aspect of personality there is evidence both of heritability and environment. This model has biological plausibility; it is true of more readily quantifiable characteristics such as height. Yet James is dismissive of what he terms the "bit of both" theory. For him, nurture is everything, and he allows no role for genetics in determining the neural substrate on which environment operates. He latches uncritically on to research that seems to support his view, and fusses and picks away at that which doesn't.
The other difficulty is the striking differences in character observable among children in almost any family you care to mention. Traditionally, dissimilarities would be ascribed to inheritance, each sibling possessing a unique genome yet exposed to the same nurture. James counters this objection by arguing that parents - despite protestations to the contrary - relate to their offspring in radically different ways. It is this, not their genes, that forges children into distinct individuals. This is an insightful idea, and James proposes parental factors that may lead to such disparity. Yet he wilfully downplays the inescapable: that genetically mediated differences in siblings' characters might themselves be important influences on parent-child relationships.
Why is James so insistent that upbringing must account for everything? In part, the answer is political: he abhors the biological determinism that underpins much right-wing ideology. If nurture is of paramount importance, then parents hold ultimate power, and responsibility, to affect what children become; and as a society our approach to children and the support we accord to those who raise them warrant wholesale re-evaluation.
The quote from Larkin's "This be the Verse" in the title signals the major theme of this book. If who we are depends on how we are nurtured, then pathological parenting is inevitably the cause of our dysfunctions; and psychological intervention offers the only hope of redemption. There is, unfortunately, abundant evidence that some parents do inflict grievous damage on their children, and moreover that this damage may become imprinted on successive generations. Yet James verges on what might be labelled environmental determinism. By denying the possibility of innate aspects to personality, he precludes anything but inevitable consequences from our childhood psychological milieu. Even extreme adversity, such as serious childhood abuse, results in highly heterogenous outcomes. People respond differently; there are trends, but myriad other factors are operating. James attempts to explain these within his nurture-specific paradigm: the effect of age at first abuse; the protective role of other healthy adult-child relationships. Yet he makes no case, convincing or otherwise, against differing resilience as partly a function of innate personality.
Ironically, the origins of James's single-mindedness lie in his own "family drama". His parents, he tells us, grew up in pathological families. Both turned to psychoanalysis in an effort to avoid repeating the experience for their own children. From James's account, they were successful, and the implication is that psychological intervention was the sole factor. He goes on to describe how he was saved from wasting his life by his father's unwavering, thankless belief in him throughout the long years of his self-avowedly delinquent youth. Once back on the righteous path, he followed his parents in training in clinical psychology.
James sought his mother's opinion on early drafts of this book. She died before its completion and her death, he says, made him an "orphan" - a revealing word for a man in his forties to use. In terms of transactional analysis, James is in many ways stuck in the role of Child, characterised by unconscious craving for parental approval and acceptance. The arguments he presents here are an extended validation of his own family mythology. If such off-the-cuff psychologising seems impertinent, I make no apology: James himself spices his essay with gossipy and at times salacious "psychobiographies" of celebrities, only some of whom he has met, let alone interviewed.
There is no mention of important models of psychological development beyond childhood. The "emotional audits" readers can undertake at the end of each chapter merely exemplify how fuzzy James's certainties are. But for all its flaws, this is a provocative study.
Phil Whitaker is a doctor. His most recent novel is The Face (Atlantic Books)
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